by April Akiva, R.J.E., Director of Congregational Learning
Under what circumstances might it be permissible to seek revenge or test a person’s trustworthiness? Parashat Miketz illustrates this dilemma as Joseph comes face-to-face with the brothers who once betrayed him.
In Parashat Miketz, Joseph continues his journey and adventure in Egypt. After interpreting two dreams of the Pharaoh, Joseph is taken out of jail and promoted to the position of Pharaoh’s advisor. When a famine strikes, Joseph’s brothers (minus Benjamin) journey to Egypt in search of food. After Joseph recognizes them, he accuses them of being spies and imprisons them for three days.
Joseph, unrecognized by his brothers, takes Simeon as a hostage and demands that the brothers return with Benjamin. Before the brothers head back to Canaan, Joseph places money and grain in their bags. The brothers and Jacob do not want to return to Egypt with Benjamin, but as the famine worsens, they return with their youngest brother in desperation. When the brothers return to Egypt, Simeon is released and they are invited to a banquet with Joseph. Over the course of the banquet, Joseph frames the brothers for theft by placing a goblet in Benjamin’s bag. The brothers are arrested and Joseph informs them all that he will keep Benjamin as a slave.
In this parashah, is Joseph seeking revenge or simply putting his brothers’ trustworthiness to the test? Years before, his brothers nearly slaughtered him before selling him as a slave. Have they changed or would they do the same to Benjamin by abandoning him in Egypt? After all, Joseph and Benjamin were the only two sons of Jacob’s most beloved wife, Rachel.
Our sages disagree about whether Joseph’s actions were justified. On the one hand, false imprisonment and terrifying the aging patriarch Joseph, seems cruel. On the other hand, how can Joseph know if his brothers have changed their ways? Why would Joseph want to reveal himself or move towards reconciliation without knowing that he can trust his brothers again?
Author Maurice Samuel is bothered by Joseph’s treatment. He writes:
He accused them of being spies. He watched their consternation, and he toyed with it while they, poor devils, stammered their protests at this unbelievable turn of events and argued with him, to no effect of course. It was like arguing with a lunatic—an omnipotent lunatic. They thought of their families at home, their wives and their little ones and old Jacob—very old by now—waiting for bread. And here was this mad governor of Egypt…If you have forgotten some details of the story, if you think that Joseph is now satisfied, that having had his innocent little revenge, he calls the shocking comedy off, then you do not know your man. The actor has an insatiable appetite for encores…This wantonness of Joseph’s, this frivolity, this cruelty, is particularly embarrassing.
Perhaps Joseph’s actions towards his brothers were justified, but he did not seem to have his father’s best interest in mind. At the worry or shock of losing more sons, or by delaying the delivery of food, Joseph puts his elderly father’s life at risk.
Revenge or even tests of character should not be allowed to impede on the well-being of innocent parties. Unfortunately, we see this as a reality all over our world. Innocent human beings suffer in times of war. A child often becomes a causality of his parents during a messy divorce. At some point, people need to step back and think about the bigger picture before seeking revenge or playing a game of charades in an effort to test another’s character.